Increasing Awareness of Well Drinking Water Quality of the Farming Community in Maryland

Progress report for ONE21-397

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2021: $29,830.00
Projected End Date: 06/30/2023
Grant Recipient: University of Maryland Extension
Region: Northeast
State: Maryland
Project Leader:
Dr. Andrew Lazur
University of Maryland Extension
Expand All

Project Information

Project Objectives:
  1. Determine Maryland farmers’ understanding of private wells and water quality including well design, wellhead protection, testing recommendations, contamination risks and health issues and water treatment. 
  2. Educate farmers by conducting project overview and testing protocol education webinars on the project, water sampling, and testing procedure/methods
  3. Develop a statewide snapshot of farm drinking water well quality by collecting and analyze water quality data. Participating farms around the state will receive individual water quality analysis results.
  4. Share results and education through webinars and instructional videos including topics on basic well information, wellhead protection, water testing recommendations, interpretation of results and recommendations for well care and water treatment.  

This farm well water project addresses reducing health risks to farmers and the environment due to potential contamination of groundwater. Further, the project potentially can improve the quality of life by empowering farmers to ensure safe, quality drinking water.  Private water wells are the major source of drinking water for the farming community and because they are not regulated as municipally supplied water, they can pose unknown health risks. Most farms also utilize septic systems for home wastewater treatment; and the risk of nitrate and bacterial contamination of wells from septic wastewater is well documented [1, 2, 3, 4]. In addition to the potential risk of bacteria and nitrate from septic systems, other contaminants from either natural or human activity sources can enter groundwater. These can include arsenic, chloride, copper, dissolved solids, iron, lead, manganese, and pesticides. The degree of contamination risk depends on a variety of factors including the concentration of the contaminant, type of well (bored, drilled, hand dug), condition of well, well depth, aquifer (unconfined, confined), and type of household plumbing (copper, galvanized, PVC), type geology, and age and condition of septic system.

Many well owners do not test their well water quality, and therefore are unaware if any contaminants are present, and what their health risks are [5]. Studies on farm well water quality are very limited; however, a few studies do show contamination risks. A USGS study in 48 states found that 23% of private wells had contaminant levels greater than health-based standards, and almost 25% of agricultural/rural wells exceeded health based standards, with 34% positive for nitrates [6]. In a farmer focused project in St. Mary’s county (n=89), 74%, 22.4%, and 26% of wells exceeded the standard for total coliform, E. coli and nitrate respectively [7]. A Delmarva USGS study revealed that pesticides and associated degradation products, were widely detected at low levels (<1 mg/L) in groundwater and streams in the Chesapeake Bay watershed [8]. They further noted that atrazine, metolachlor, and simazine are the most commonly detected pesticides in surface water, whereas atrazine is the most commonly detected pesticide in groundwater. These studies clearly show a concerning incidence of drinking water quality contamination for the farm community.

     This study aims to evaluate farm well drinking water quality in multiple regions of Maryland that represent varied well characteristics and all five of the major geologic physiographic provinces influencing groundwater quantity and quality [9]. In addition, this project will engage and educate farmers on the health risks associated with contaminants, well protection practices, water quality testing recommendations, and water treatment options they can employ to remediate any contaminant and ensure good quality drinking water and protect their health.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info


Materials and methods:
  1. Conduct farmer surveys to identify understanding of private wells and care, water testing/quality and health risks.

At the beginning of the project, investigators (PI Lazur, Co-PI Goldstein), will develop and get IRB approval for a Qualtrics assessment survey for farmers in 10 counties of the state. Co-investigator Ag Agents (Beale, Dill, Hirsh, Leslie, and Nichols) will coordinate with neighboring county Agent colleagues to distribute the survey (online and paper formats) using their existing email/mailing lists. It is anticipated that 6 - 8 farms (project total of 75 farms and samples) from each county targeted will be recruited to participate in the water-testing component of the project to allow for greater representation of geology and aquifer and well type. Farmers not participating in the well testing will be able to attend project educational events (webinars or workshops) and will be informed of other related educational events. The survey will include a summary of the project and questions to identify farmer knowledge of:

  • Well specifics - location, construction type (dug, bored or drilled), depth, age, source aquifer, and type/age of home plumbing (copper, galvanized or PVC)
  • Wellhead protection - sanitary well cap, ground sloping, grouting, flood prevention, and stormwater diversion
  • Well testing – frequency of testing, what to test for, and meaning of results
  • Health risks associated with water contamination
  • Contamination risks – malfunctioning septic system, corrosive water, stormwater, and pesticides

The survey will be anonymous and reviewed by the UMD Institutional Review Board. 

  1. Conduct testing protocol education webinars to inform farmers on proper water sampling and testing procedure/methods.

Webinars will be held with participating farmers to describe the project objectives, water sampling and testing methods. Three webinars (one per major region) will be coordinated by the Agent investigators and include PIs Lazur and Goldstein to provide technical water quality information.

  1. Collect and analyze water quality data for associations to location, geology type, well construction/design, type aquifer, plumbing, proximity to pesticide application, etc.

Seventy-five well water samples will be collected for this project. It is anticipated that eight samples representing the varied types of wells (shallow dug and deeper bored or drilled) and aquifer types (confined and unconfined) will be collected from each of 10 counties. The project will cover the majority of analyses costs with farmers paying a much reduced water analysis charge ($25) as an incentive to participate in the study. The collected fees will be used to augment water analysis supplies, student labor and investigator travel. Samples will be analyzed for inorganic, microbial and pesticide contaminants as follows:

Inorganic: alkalinity, nitrate, pH, total dissolved solids and metals – aluminum, arsenic, barium, cadmium, calcium, chloride, chromium, cobalt, copper, iron, lead, manganese, magnesium, molybdenum, nickel, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, silicon, silver, sodium, strontium, sulfate, tin, titanium, uranium and vanadium.

Microbial: total coliforms and E. coli 

Pesticides: atrazine, glyphosate, metolachlor, and simazine

First draw (drawn after overnight/unused) water samples will be collected at the farm’s drinking water faucet by the farmer and shipped with ice packs within 24 hours to Dr. Goldstein’s lab for further processing/distribution to other cooperating labs. Dr. Goldstein’s lab will conduct the microbial analysis using standard membrane filtration. Water samples will be analyzed for indicator bacteria (total coliforms and E. coli) using MI selective agar. Presumptive isolates will be confirmed using polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Metal analysis will be conducted by the Virginia Tech Environmental and Water Resources Engineering water quality laboratory. Pesticide analysis will be conducted at UMD School of Public Health Institute for Applied Environmental Health - Exposome Small Molecule Core Facility, directed by Dr. Amir Sapkota. Alkalinity, nitrate and total dissolved solids (TDS) will be analyzed at a MD certified private lab. All data will be anonymous and de-identified using a coding system developed by the co-PIs. Water samples will be compared against EPA drinking water standards. Evaluation of associations of water quality parameters with type geology, type well (dug, bored, drilled), aquifer (unconfined or confined), wellhead condition, and type of plumbing will be conducted using multivariate regression analysis (SAS 9.3).

  1. Extension component – provide farmers with water quality results, interpretation and recommendations for care and treatment. Detail provided in Outreach Plan section.
Research results and discussion:

January 2023 Report:

Online survey results: Since the beginning of the project in September 2021, over 2,000 farmers were informed of the project and invitation to participate in the online survey and well testing. 140 farmers have completed the online survey and 64 wells to date were selected for water quality testing. An additional 11 wells will be sampled in February, 2023. Analysis of the well data survey results is currently underway. 

Webinars: Two webinars on water collection methods have been conducted. Webinars on wells, well care, and water quality are schedule for January - April, 2023.  

Well Water Quality Analysis: 67 water samples of the 64 wells were tested for: alkalinity, coliform bacteria, E.coli, nitrate and a suite of 29 metals (aluminum, arsenic, barium, cadmium, calcium, chloride, chromium, cobalt, copper, lead, lithium, iron, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, silicon, silver, sodium, strontium, sulfate, tin, titanium, uranium, vanadium, and zinc). Farmers of the 67 samples were provided the water quality analysis report including interpretation of the results.  A Master's student, Cameron Smith,  in the UMD School of Public Health - Institute of Applied Environmental Health, analyzed the coliform bacteria and E. coli data and survey response feedback. 10 and 39% of the wells were positive for E. coli and coliform bacteria respectively. Wells within the western part of the state had the highest percentage of positive results for bacteria. No correlation with presence of bacteria and geology, well depth, well type, or age was observed. A poster (attached) of these results was presented to the Maryland Water Monitoring Council Conference in December, 2022.  To date the metal results were as follows: 20.8 % of wells were observed to have alkalinity greater than 200 mg/l, and 30.5% had sodium levels greater than the EPA drinking water advisory of 30-60 mg/l. Four wells or 5.56% had nitrate levels greater that the EPA maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 10 mg/l. Three wells had arsenic levels above the EPA MCL of 0.01 mg/l. Two wells exceeded the EPA Secondary Maximum Contaminant Level (SMCL) for iron. Three wells exceeded the EPA SCML for ether chloride, manganese or sulfate.  It is anticipated that 11 more wells will be tested and the final report will provide water quality data for the targeted 75 wells.  

Pesticide Analysis: The pesticide analysis component of the project was delayed due a change in availablity of a UMD lab, and is now planned for February-March, 2023. 

Video Production: One draft video on wells, the project, and interviews with farmer partner is completed. An additional video on wells, well care, and water quality is scheduled for March-April. 


Research conclusions:

So far in the project we have successfully identified that farm well water quality does show some risk to known contaminants that can impact human health. 39% of the wells tested to date showed the presence of coliform bacteria and 10% were positive for E.coli. In addition, 5.6% of wells had nitrate levels exceeding the EPA MCL. These three water quality parameters are indicators of some contamination by animal waste (insects, animal, wildlife, or human sewage) suggesting that the aquifer is contaminated or that the wellhead is damaged and providing entry of contamination into the well. In the next phase of the project the condition and features of the wells will be correlated with the water quality to better determine source of bacteria or nitrate contamination. Farmers with positive bacteria and nitrate were informed of the results and provided specific recommendations to correct the issue, either with addition of water filtration or repair of their well head.

The metal analysis component of the water quality component has shown that 30.5% of wells have elevated sodium above the EPA SCML of 60 mg/l. Sodium can enter well water by the natural aquifer geology, road salts, fertilizers or home water softeners. Since most farm wells tend not to be located near roads that are salted during winter months, the other sources are more likely candidates. 54.5% of these wells with elevated sodium have water softeners which use salt and thereof are adding sodium to the drinking water.  Three wells had arsenic levels posing risk to human health and one well had elevated manganese which has been shown to cause neurological disorders especially in children. All farmers were provided with the results, and interpretation of the data and human health risks. In addition, they were informed of possible water filtration devices that will reduce contaminants to safe levels for drinking.  

Participation Summary
61 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
2 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

64 Farmers participated
Education/outreach description:

Farmer partners (total of four) and 71 additional participating farmers will be recruited by the Agents and represent different types of farms/practices and well types. A webinar in the first two months of the project will be provided for participating farmers to describe the scope of the project and water testing protocols. Three general well education webinars will be conducted throughout the project providing information on: basic hydrology and aquifers, well design, home well systems, sources of contamination, wellhead protection, water quality parameters and associated health risks, testing, and treatment options and their maintenance. Two videos will be produced covering well care and water quality, testing, and posted on the UME Well and Septic Education Program’s YouTube channel. A written report of the farmer’s water quality results will be provided to farmers followed by individual reviews either in person or electronically to share and interpret water analysis results and discuss any treatment recommendations. These sessions will be coordinated by the County Agent investigator (and Agent colleagues) and investigators Lazur and Goldstein. Farmers will receive a follow up survey (approved by UMD IRB) six months post results discussion to identify if additional information is needed and whether learned practices (e.g. wellhead protection, treatment), have been implemented. All farm data is confidential, and for reports and presentations, bacteria, nutrient and inorganic contaminant data will be aggregated showing associations with aquifer and well type, and type of plumbing. Pesticide data will only be shared with the individual farmer to maintain confidentiality.

Initial farm well survey announcements been distributed to over 2,000 farmers through email and newsletter lists as well as to 21 Winter Agriculture meetings. Two webinars on water sampling methods have been conducted targeting the 64 farmers who had agreed to participate in the well water testing program. Other project webinars providing more technical information on wells, wellhead protection, well care, contaminants, water quality parameters, potential health risks and filtration systems will be conducted in February - April, 2023. 

A poster on the bacteria results was developed and presented at the Maryland Water Monitoring Council Conference in Linthicum, MD and will be posted on the UME Water Quality Website featuring the project. The Master's student working on the bacteria component of the water analysis will complete her thesis in late 2023, and it is anticipated that an article will be submitted to a journal. Results of the bacteria, metal and pesticide analysis results will be presented the Maryland Association of County Agricultural Agents in July 2023. Abstracts and presentation of the bacteria, metal and pesticide components will also be submitted to the August 2o23 NACAA conference in Iowa. 

Information Products

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.